Pilgrimage to Midnight Mass



‘Twas the night before Christmas, and the children were nestled all snug in their beds. Nope. Not us. We were going to Midnight Mass.

The sun had gone down at 4:30 p.m., and the dark hours which followed made Christmas Eve feel as though it dragged on for centuries. If you were smart, like my grown brothers and sisters who were home for the holidays, you slept away the time. I was too young for grown-up naps and too old for baby naps. I goofed off until I was tired, and still the hours stretched on, long and inert. So I waited, bored and restless, for 11 p.m. to come.

Finally it did. The whole household awoke from its slumber and sprang into action. There was no more time to waste. “Ten minutes!” Mom would call up the stairs to my sisters who were doing their hair. Then a minute later, “Time to go!”

“Hey, weren’t there 10?” we’d all say. “Where are the other nine?”

We emerged from the flurry of activity in the house into the cold stillness. The snow crunched under our feet as we tramped to the car, blowing “smoke” rings with our breath. The car door was frozen shut as if to say “Turn back! You should be home dreaming of sugarplums, not out in the cold, black night!” It was frigid inside the car even after a 10-minute warm-up, and it helped that we were packed in tight. Pop coaxed it down our winding hill, trying not to slide into one of the neighbor’s ditches. Nobody wanted to get out and push. That might make us late.

We warmed up just as we coasted into the church parking lot. We got out and picked our way carefully toward the church, its arched portal glowing with yellow light, and entered into the Divine Presence. The altar was trimmed in red velvet and greenery. Our friends were there, kids my age, their middle-aged parents, and old people, all with their boots on and wearing their best clothes under their woolen coats. We no longer minded being up past our bedtimes. It was no longer the end of the day. It was the beginning.

Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in the piercing cold. (From the St. Andrew Christmas Novena)

The waiting was over; the cold, dark centuries were past. We were there at the crib, like the shepherds, who came out of the night at the birth of the day.

When I was very little, I couldn’t last through Mass. Sleepiness always caught up with me, and once warm in the pew, and with the priest’s voice droning on, I’d pass out with my head in my mother’s lap, my rubber boots dripping slush over the edge of the pew.

Pop (or one of my big brothers) would hoist me up on his shoulder like a sack of flour. “It’s over. We’re going home.” The first year that I made it to the recessional, I learned that staying up had its rewards. Old Msgr. Hayes, also up past his bedtime, had announced that we would now all sing “Hark, the Herald!” On the way home, my brother and I sang, “Hark the her-rrrrrrr… ald!” in between helpless over-tired fits of giggling.

Every year after that we stayed through the end and beyond. The organ would play “Joy to the World” (or as Monsignor might have put it, “Joy to the!”). The church would empty out; people would exchange Merry Christmases. We’d stay in our pew, singing verse after verse as long as the organ played and no one threw us out. On the way home in the car, we’d do Mom’s favorite, “Lo, How a Rose,” in harmony.

I was a teen the Christmas when snow began during Midnight Mass. Pop drove home slowly as it streamed down in big crepe paper-like tufts. Mesmerizing under the streetlights, it washed out all the black around it, a testament to the purity and freshness of the grace we had just received.

By then we were a remnant of our formerly big family of eight kids but still enough for fun. We caroled as the Pontiac valiantly forged ahead. Halfway up our street, it got stuck in a rut and dug in its heels like a donkey that refused to go on. We piled out and pushed, but we barely budged it off the road into a neighbor’s yard, where it passed out at a drunken angle beside his Camaro. Mom would call to explain in the morning.

In the morning? It was already morning. But we weren’t going to bed yet. We forged up the hill, following in each other’s footsteps. Home wasn’t far. My brother had wrapped strings of colored bulbs around our front pine trees, and now they shone through the powder like beacons. We opened the door greeted by the smell of Christmas. Tourtière.

A hearty pork and potato pie in a buttery flaky crust, it was just what we wanted after a long, meatless Christmas Eve. Mom had not spent the prior evening goofing off. She had been busy preparing it for us.

Pronounced too-chair, its French spelling is the only fancy thing about it. It came straight from the farm kitchens of our French-Canadian foremothers. It was their tradition to eat it only at Christmas and only after Midnight Mass, and now it was ours. That is what made it special. It united us to each other and connected us to those who had gone before us.

To confess, I don’t recall ever helping Mom make it. I only learned how when I was married myself and living far from home. I took it for granted that Mom would provide it — as I have often taken for granted the graces wrought at the hands of holy Mother Church.

And I wonder how it was for those who waited for the first Christmas all those centuries before. Some prepared with good deeds, like the five wise virgins, and were ready when the bridegroom arrived (see Matthew 25:1-13). Others goofed off, and when the time came, they put out their hands and said, “Pass the tourtière.”

Mom got the tourtière warmed up in minutes, and we sat informally around the living room by the light of the tree. Christmas was now.

Immortal God takes mortal flesh and elevates it, making it a vessel of grace.

The transcendent God comes down and dwells in the mundane. You hang your memories of the transcendent on the mundane. You enter the Holy of Holies and fall asleep on a hard pew. Your boots drip on its floor. You receive the Lord at Midnight Mass and carry him home with you. He is in you as the dazzling snow blots out blackness and as you push your car out of the rut. He leads you on your pilgrimage because he has walked this way before you.

The Word Made Flesh enters the world in a humble cave, amidst the lowing of cattle and the scent of a barnyard. The heavenly hosts appear to shepherds. They knock on the cave and duck their heads as they enter. Our Lord walks among us and sanctifies the ground with every footfall and breathes into the frozen night the warm breath of his grace.

Photo: Susie Lloyd
Photo: Susie Lloyd

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